User Reviews

I’m going way out on a limb here, and surely many of you may disagree with me, but I feel pretty strongly about this, as a serious consumer and as a serious business person running a startup that connects consumers with local merchants.

Greg Sterling posted an interesting piece on his blog today titled “Opportunity: Online Reputation Management.” I can’t debate the logic here and the basic point that it makes, but I think that the reality of user reviews and how they may or may not influence consumerism is much deeper than indicated. I also think that the user-review value proposition for small, local merchants is not a strong one.

Citysquares.com offers users with the ability to write reviews for local merchants. An interesting example of this is for a new coffee house in Central Square Cambridge, called Andala. It’s probably the best example you’ll get in any urbanized area of the typical small business just getting off the ground. They’re not a Citysquares.com customer (yet). I’ve been there, with my wife, and Chris has been there a few times. I really enjoyed my experience there, and I posted a review. Why? For two reasons: 1, because I truly enjoyed my experience so much, I found the atmosphere, the coffee (I’m a coffee fanatic), and the pastries and so forth very good and it reminded me of my visit to Beirut Lebanon a couple years ago. My wife also really enjoyed it. That experience was, on a scale of 1 to 10, a 9. That’s how strongly I felt about Andala so I posted a review, once I returned home. The second reason is because I want their business and I genuinely want to help them succeed.

Here’s the problem. I am founder and CEO of Citysquares.com, and for better or worse, I only post reviews for local businesses when I feel strongly compelled. I think I’m a typical consumer too – discerning, choosey, but reasonable. I believe that I am like the vast majority of consumers, of all ages.

Ask your friends, ask your family – how many of them add reviews for local businesses? How many of them make a choice to shop at local merchant A vs. local merchant B because of some stranger’s review? I think you’ll find the answer, as we have found, to be not too surprising – that it plays a very insignificant role in local consumerism. But let me stipulate one very significant factors: I’m speaking about local merchants – not products! I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Here’s what I’ve concluded about reviews for local merchants: For the most part, their nice to have, their moderately helpful for a small slice of the consumer market, but by and large, most consumers don’t find reviews of local businesses really all that relevant or meaningful. However, that whole reality gets flipped over on it’s head with one simple difference, and that difference is the almighty dollar. How much cheddar do I plan on spending? That’s the critical factor here.

Whether it’s for a local shoe store, pizza pie, a bar, or for the closest Bank of America, user reviews just don’t carry much weight with the typical, and more importantly, LOCAL consumer.

Now, let’s say I was going to take Ali out for a nice dinner, perhaps within a 30 minute radius of home, somewhere we’ve never been? I plan on dropping a little more loot, having a bottle of wine, in a quiet, romantic atmosphere. Suddenly what other people have to say means more to me. Even still, for me, unless the reviews are dramatically, and powerfully positive or negative, they don’t really impact my decision that much. I can’t think of any situation that user reviews would have a really big impact on my local shopping behavior. Ultimately, I’m looking for X, and I’m looking for it here.

Additionally, part of the fun I have shopping locally is having my own experience – not basing my decision on a stranger’s opinion. Ah, now that opens up a whole new topic doesn’t it – Trust. That’s where this is going? Well, not today.

Back to products. This is interesting because here’s where user reviews take front row – here’s where they take center stage. Product reviews!

Just this weekend I had to find a new boom microphone for my digital camcorder. I didn’t want the stock Canon boom mic, I wanted something else. But I read some reviews on CNET, and sure enough, I made my buying decision.

Take my BlackBerry Pearl for example – a huge jump for me. I went from being a long time and loyal Windows Mobile user to BlackBerry. Before I spent the moolah and made the jump, I wanted to know what others had to say – many many others. I wanted a big sampling of user reviews.

Take my Creative Zen, a new refigerator, humidifier, bicycle, pair of skis, golf club – you name it. I want to know what others have to say – really badly. I bought some new golf clubs this past summer – let me tell you – I probably spent 15 hours or so reading what others had to say about a wide variety of drivers and irons. I’m not exaggerating – just ask Ali, and my brother and father.

Ok, what’s the point here? The point is this: I think user reviews are important for every form of consumerism, whether products, services, local retail, you name it. But ultimately it’s all about the mighty dollar and the impact on me or others around me. How much money I’m going to spend, and how much that decision has an impact on me or others around me. High spend? High impact? Reviews matter. Low spend, low impact, reviews don’t matter.

So if I had a formula it would be:

Total Spend $
—————— = Relevance of user reviews
Total Impact
(distance, pleasure/pain)

That looks more impressive than it really is. Cool

Amendment: Greg and I exchanged emails after he read this blog post and he reminded me of an interesting point that I forgot to address, and that is as follows: In our many many conversations with local merchants, be them in sales calls or for other reasons, local merchants are not terribly big fans of user reviews. They don’t want bad reviews written about them. Surely, they also need to understand that they have a job to do – and that’s to please every customer. Yet some customers simply can’t be pleased, and some use the Internet or a user review platform as a sort of anonymous soap box. Ultimately, user reviews will be a big part of local search and online advertising for the foreseeable future, and certainly that is true for Citysquares.com. But we respect the needs of the local merchants, and while we allow user reviews, we do need to take an editorial approach to them sometimes. Take Andala for example. The user jlobel actually used a word that we could not approve. We did not bar his review, we merely edited the word. If a local merchant believes we’re on their side, and trust us to take user reviews and that sort of content seriously, especially if they’re a paid advertiser, than everyone is happy.

Lastly, on Greg’s point about there being an opportunity for online reputation management for local merchant reviews, I totally agree. Whoever figures that out is one clever person!

Local and Hyper-Local

Local is, of course relative. But as it pertains to the Internet, local can really only mean one thing – what’s close to me. OK, OK, “close to me” is also relative, but still, all things pertaining ‘local’ herein refer to local Internet search and resources. Boston.com could be considered in the ‘local space’ as could the other countless local newspapers. Craigslist could also be considered considered local. There are some fine lines that distinguish a local site, from a non local site, and I have to say that one of the most critical defining characteristics is the site’s audience. I think that’s probably the simplest way to put it.

The Kelsey Group is perhaps the foremost expert in ‘local’. In fact, Citysquares’ business plan and investor presentations are jam packed with goodie-stats from Kelsey. Ultimately, they’ve got their fingers directly on the aorta of all this local-ness.

A few days ago I had the pleasure of meeting Peter Krasilovsky. As it turns out, Peter and I share a few contacts. Peter is sort of a guru of the local space (Today I referred to Peter as the ‘Peter Gammons’ of local). We had a very interesting dialogue about the players out there, who’s hurting, who’s doing well, and generally his take on Citysquares.com. His feedback was immensely valuable, but what struck me more was his generosity to donate his time to me. He was in no rush to get off the phone (even though my VOIP phone was acting up), and offered up his brain power anytime. Peter has a blog called The Local Onliner. He’s respected enough that The Kelsey Group pulls his blog feed into their site. (If that’s not a thumbs-up, I don’t know what is.) He doesn’t write about local startups often, if at all, but he just posted a little piece about Citysquares.com.

What strikes me about his brief assessment is his use of the term “hyper-local.” I definitely used the term on our call, and surely he saw it on Citysquares.com, but he didn’t put quotes around it. Maybe I’m reading into this too much, but this is a fairly contentious term, because hyper-local typically refers to news – news in your neighborhood, your ward, your precinct. News from your precinct is pretty darn local. Any more local and you’re hanging out at Bingo night with the local grapevine. But hyper-local is a term that Citysquares has embraced, not because it’s sticky, but because it’s what we are. Citysquares.com can be the embodiment of your precinct, your neighborhood, on the internet. LOCAL. HYPER-LOCAL.

One of the pioneers of hyper-local is Rob Curley, whose seemingly accidental fall into hyper-local was a very lucky fall indeed. There was a great article about Rob in Fast Company last month. The title of the article? “Hyper-Local Hero.” Nice huh?

Now I don’t know if Rob’s version of hyper-local is more authentic than Citysquares’ version, or the other way around, or if we’re both hyper-local in our distinct ways. But if Peter Krasilovsky can use the term “hyper local” and “Citysquares.com” in the sentence (without saying “Citysquares.com is NOT hyper local”) than I just received confirmation. It’s sort of like Peter Gammons saying that David Ortiz is a DH – it’s just not true until The Commissioner says so.

Look at Craigslist. There is a reality out there, that CL is hurting local papers. I don’t know what the facts and figures are, but if you’ve paid attention to the local newspaper space, something is killing ’em – that’s undeniable. Rob Curley seems to have a fix.

Know of any other hyper-local services out there in cyber-space?